One of this year’s most interesting and beautiful art exhibitions is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a fine museum that too few Americans visit. The product of cooperation along museums in England, France and Canada, “Turner, Whistler, Monet: Impressionist Visions” utilizes 100 paintings, watercolors, pastels and prints – augmented by an excellent catalog – to explore the artistic dialogue among the works of three greats of world art. The ambitious show examines how J.M.W. Turner, and later James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet, incorporated the smoke and pollution of European industry into new, modern ideas of beauty. Conceived by Dr Katharine Lochnan, senior curator and curator of prints and drawings at the Art Gallery, the show will be in Toronto through September 12. It then travels to the Grand Palais in Paris (October 12-January 17) and Tate Britain in London (February 10-May 15).
Although Turner, Whistler and Monet have been studied extensively, this is the first major effort to delve into the connections among them. It examines the ramifications of the mutual admiration that existed between American-born Whistler (1834-1903) and Frenchman Monet (1840-1926) and their shared admiration for the work of Englishman Turner (1775-1851).
Influenced by Turner’s perceived “lack of finish” and poetic atmospheric effects, Whistler created variations on the British artist’s themes. Monet explored subjects and styles introduced by Turner and Whistler.
As documented in this extensive exhibition, all three artists shared a love for the Thames River in London, the Seine River in France and the Venetian Lagoon in Italy. By looking at these artists in an international framework, the show illuminates the manner in which their fruitful exchange of ideas contributed to the evolution of Impressionism. It is, says curator Lochnan, a “huge story in Nineteenth Century landscape art.”
Most interestingly, the exhibition and catalog examine ways in which each artist used the deleterious effects of the Industrial Revolution – polluted rivers, foul air and limited visibility caused by smog – as aesthetic tools to enhance their art. Turner’s early views of the Thames, for example, depicted it in relatively pristine fashion, but as he observed the degradation of the environment that followed London’s industrialization, he adapted its atmospheric effects in his work.
“By the time Whistler and Monet arrived on the scene,” observes Lochnan in the exhibition catalog, “London was horribly polluted. For artists working from nature and dedicated to the search for beauty in modern life, this posed an aesthetic dilemma.”
Continues Lochnan, “However beautiful they appear on the surface, the water and air…[in London, France and Venice] gave rise…to unpleasant odours, contagious and deadly diseases, and limited visibility. While acknowledging its negative impact on the environment, these three artists found inspiration in the modern industrial landscape.”
This largely unrecognized aspect of the art of these masters was the subject of a June symposium at the Art Gallery, “Impressionism and the Aesthetics of Pollution.” It is to be hoped that the papers of the seven participating international scholars, including John House and Robert Rosenblum, will be published for wide distribution.
The pacesetter for the trio, Turner, considered by many Britain’s greatest Nineteenth Century painter, made his name in works that reflected his fascination with light and atmosphere and his interest in representing man amid nature’s drama.
A star early in his career, he conveyed a romantic feeling for atmospheric effects in oil paintings and watercolors of unique delicacy and coloring. Critics were divided on his landscape experiments and refinements. Some were offended by what they called Turner’s “colouring run mad,” while others singled out his work as among “the most beautiful and magnificent landscapes that ever mind conceived of pencil [i.e. brush]”
Turner exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and in galleries. His works sold well; he died a very wealthy man.
Early on, Turner became a keen observer of London’s Thames River, which he came to depict at dawn and dusk and on moonlit nights. In his 30s he painted an Arcadian view of the river, replete with grazing animals and stately buildings, in “London from Greenwich Park,” circa 1809.
During his lifetime, however, London became the largest industrial city in the world, which led inevitably to all kinds of environmental problems. As the Industrial Revolution advanced, the Thames, which served London as both water supply and sewer, came to be fouled with effluent and refuse from industrial plants. By the time of Turner’s death, Lochnan observes, the river had become “a giant sewer.”
Moreover, the sky about the river was obscured by smog so much of the time that the sun made only rare appearances. Turner turned the polluted setting into an aesthetic plus. “Atmospheric pollution,” writes Lochnan, “brought with it sublime effects that excited Turner’s imagination and contributed to spectacular sunsets.”
During the 1820s, while the artist continued to work from observed nature, he began to exercise greater imagination, particularly with regard to the polluted environment. In “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834” (1834) Turner made the confluence of the spectacular conflagration, sewage-clogged river and polluted air into a large, dramatic painting.
Born in Lowell, Mass., Whistler spent part of his youth in Europe, before returning to the United States and being dismissed from West Point. Thereupon he decided to become an artist. He made his reputation first in Paris and then in London. Aided by his eccentric appearance and pugnacious personality, as well as controversial art, Whistler became an international art celebrity.
He became familiar with and was influenced by Turner’s work early in his career. Seeking to gain fame by focusing on “the landscape of great cities,” as French writer Charles Beaudelaire recommended, in 1839 Whistler began to depict London along the odoriferous and badly polluted Thames. In addition to paintings he executed a number of elegant etchings, many of which are on view in the current exhibition.
Whistler’s increasing interest in incorporating atmospheric effects created by smoke and fog is reflected in “Grey and Silver: Old Battersea Reach” (1863). It features a number of river men and working boats in the foreground, with smoke-belching industrial plants looming in the hazy background. This canvas marks the beginning of the artist’s transition from realism to aestheticism.
Whistler’s famous night scenes, which he called Nocturnes, are highlighted by the evocative, smog-filled “Nocturne: Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge” (circa 1872-75). Through the hazy night viewers can glimpse a fragment of the wooden bridge spanning the Thames, with lights of the city twinkling in the distance.
A special treat in the exhibition is the presence of Whistler’s most famous night picture, “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” (1875), loaned by the Detroit Institute of Arts. This vague approximation of a fireworks display at London’s Cremorne Gardens was ridiculed by John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the day, in colorful, derogatory terms. Whistler sued for libel and was awarded a symbolic farthing in damages. The celebrated case, however, established the right of artists to determine when their work was finished. Looking at this remarkable work today, it is hard to see what all the fuss was about.
Whistler probably met the slightly younger Monet in the middle to late 1860s, by which time the Frenchman was starting to make a name for himself. Both men came to admire each other’s work.
In London, 1870-71 Monet visited Whistler’s studio, where he would have seen early Nocturnes, and also encountered Turner’s works at the National Gallery. The latter event, especially, may have inspired Monet’s “The Thames Below Westminster” (1871) that offers a hazy view of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Bridge traversing the Thames dotted with paddle steamers.
“[T]he soft, suffused salmon pinks that enliven both sky and water…suggest the warm light of the sun behind the mist; here we can sense the impact of Turner’s later work,” observes John House of the Coutauld Institute. He adds that in this painting the Frenchman was “centrally concerned with London’s distinctive light and atmosphere, and with the ways of translating this into paint.”
The impact of Monet’s London sojourn is apparent in his work after his return to France. “Impression, Sunrise” (1872-73) – the painting that led to the naming of the Impressionist movement – shows Turner’s influence in the way in which the sun reflects on the water, while the vague rendering of the vessels is suggestive of Whistler’s Nocturnes.
Two other striking Monet oils in the show underscore his special debt to Turner. In “Sunset on the Seine” (1874), the calligraphic forms of reeds in the foreground (reminiscent of Japanese color prints that the Frenchman collected) frame a sailing boat silhouetted against an extravagant sunset. It is, says House, “an explicit response to the challenge of Turner,” although its careful rendering of colors of the sky seems more realistic than Turner’s more generalized depictions. It is a memorable image.
The same may be said about the unusually large “Sunset on the Seine, Winter Effect” (1880), in which the pale sun pierces the haze and reflects on the river in a highly Turneresque manner.
When Monet returned to London after the turn of the century, the environment had declined even further, as documented in an extensive series showing Waterloo Bridge by day and night. In some paintings the curved arches and smoky factories behind the bridge are readily apparent. In “Waterloo Bridge: The Sun in a Fog” (1903), the sun, fighting its way through the haze and smog, vaguely illuminates the ghostly image of the barely discernible span, which the factories have disappeared altogether in the haze and smog.
Inevitably, Venice – a place of particular fascination for artists – drew the attention and brush of all three painters. Turner, who visited the city of the Doges three times, turned out a series of striking, lushly hued watercolors and oil views of the venerable city and its structures along canals.
Most notable is a view from the Hotel Europa of the island church of San Giorgio Maggiore, as seen through gauzy air on the Grand Canal. “The Dogano, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa,” is poetic and delicate. It is a wonderful evocation of the magical setting that is Venice at twilight.
Lochnan writes in the catalog that Whistler was “undoubtedly” prompted in part to go to Venice as a result of having seen Turner’s depictions of the picturesque city, such as “The Dogano.” Once there, in 1879-1880, the expatriate American created a breathtaking series of etchings of canal-side buildings, as well as pastels of the city’s famous sunsets and a few paintings. The standout oil is “Nocturne in Blue and Silver: The Lagoon, Venice” (1880), a striking nighttime version of Turner’s painting, with the island of San Giorgio Maggiore reflected in the Lagoon.
Monet, in turn, may have been influenced by Whistler’s canvas to execute his own series of paintings of the same site, highlighted by “San Giorgio at Dusk” (1908), in which a spectacularly hued sunset highlights the island’s campanile, central dome and façade of the church. In 1908 Monet also painted a number of blue tinged views of three palazzi along the Grand Canal.
These paintings not only marked Monet’s “farewell to Venice,” writes Sylvia Patin, chief conservator of the Musée d’Orsay, “they were a final adieu to Turner and Whistler.” Thereafter, Monet devoted himself to depicting the beauties surrounding his place in Giverny.
Summarizing this trail-blazing exhibition, Lochnan writes: “Whistler and Monet sought and found beauty in contemporary landscape. Inspired by Turner, they created arguably the most poetic landscapes of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Viewing nature through their unique temperaments, their artistic visions have never spoken more directly to audiences around the world than they do today.”
Congratulations to Lochnan and her colleagues for mounting this splendid, informative exhibition. It is well worth a trip to Toronto, its only North American venue.
The 262-page exhibition catalog is lavishly illustrated and edited by Lochnan, with chapters by House and other authorities from England, France and the United States. Published by Tate Publishing in hardback and in paperback by the Art Gallery of Ontario, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, this handsome volume will be a valuable addition to the bookshelves of scholars and art lovers.
The Art Gallery of Ontario is located at 317 Dundas Street West. For information: 416-979-6660 or www.ago.net.